In the moment, it was just a man lying in the sun after a swim. But captured by photographer Max Dupain, the Sunbaker – with his glistening chrome skin, beads of water and white sand beneath his body – became a monument to Australian identity. He's either sunbaking or embracing the land, or both.

This year marks the photograph’s 80th birthday. For Australian Centre for Photography curator Claire Monneraye, it’s the perfect opportunity to talk about what this photo means to Australians. A new show at the Monash Gallery of Art, Under the Sun, presents 15 contemporary responses to the image.

Dupain snapped Sunbaker in 1937, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it became an icon. It was a time when Australian art and, in turn, our sense of cultural identity, was experiencing a revolution. Monneraye says Sunbaker came to represent something bigger.

“This image keeps coming back,” says Monneraye. “It’s such a milestone. It seems simple, but there’s so much to say about it.”

It’s a romantic image of Australia as a sundrenched, masculine nation of beauty, but it’s also seen to represent colonialism and oppression. The country and the nation is complex, as the diverse group of artists featured in Under the Sun demonstrates.

Sydney-based artist Sara Oscar’s Pleasant Island series depicts Manus Island with images that make the place look like a holiday destination, when in fact it’s home to a detention center that has become one of the country’s most controversial and criticised expressions of Australia’s refugee policy. Yhonnie Scarce uses a family portrait of her grandfather, who was not recognised as an Australian citizen because he was Indigenous. And Julie Rrap's Speechless 1 reimagines Dupain’s photograph as a sculpture, in which the sunbaker is not so much embracing the land but leaving a permanent mark on it.

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The show is all about complicating what used to be a definitive image of Australia.

“I see it as a great way to trigger some conversations,” says Monneraye.

Under the sun: Reimaging Max Dupain’s Sunbaker runs at Monash Gallery of Art until August 6.

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